We spent the better part of ten minutes arguing about what the symbols meant. Trying to revive the dead follower of the All-Father proved pointless, Lugh didn't want to come back, presumably because he found peace on the other side. We, however, were fairly screwed.
“A tree?” Maziel confirmed with me for the fifth time, studying the symbol in the fomorian’s blood.
“Yes,” I replied, trying not to sound exasperated. I plopped onto the floor. “In druidic. Which I can read.”
The group went back at it.
“It has to be for Taelim.”
“But a tree? We're in the Feydark!”
“Maybe Lugh had a garden?”
“What about the other symbols?”
I let them bicker on, closing my eyes and endeavoring to get in touch with nature. If there was a tree in this gods-forsaken city, this druid was going to find it.
A few moments later I blinked back up at my friends, suddenly aware they were watching me quietly.
“And?” Maziel broke the silence, arms crossed.
I grinned. “I found a tree.”
We ended up at the temple of Annam; somewhere inside I sensed a tree. Looking up at this monumental building swarming with city watch, I was having doubts. They had probably found Lugh’s body by now. I glanced over my shoulder at the others, they were contemplating too. Silently we crept to the side of the temple, doing our best to avoid attention.
“Taelim…” Maziel tried, but I cut her off.
“I swear there’s a tree.”
“Inside the temple?” Yaup finished, skepticism implied.
“Yeah...” I bit my lip then shrugged. “Maybe I should go inside first.”
“Alone?” Klotonk questioned, concern in his big-eyed stare.
I winked at him then changed into a bird, perching on the roof and looking about.
“Five gold pieces she--” but I flew off, searching for an opening. By sheer luck I found a strange ventilation shaft, squeezing inside and hopping around, I followed my senses. I stopped at a particular grate and changed back into my half-elf form. This was Lugh’s office. I managed to push open the grate without a sound, dropping down into the room. I gazed around the austere space, now beginning to doubt my own worth as a druid.
Then my eyes fell on the staff hanging on the wall and dominating the attention there. It was gorgeous, carved like gnarled wood and ending in a bunch of small, tangled branches with tiny leaves. “Whoa…” I whispered, taking the staff into my hands. The little plaque below it read: Staff of the Woodlands. Carefully I slung it on my back and eyed the shelving unit I needed to climb back to the vent.
This time my luck ran out, and in that moment I genuinely missed Cosmo. The kender would have made short work of this retrieval mission. The shelf was old, and in no way secured to the wall, so together we toppled backwards with a crash. A fomorian guard burst into the room as I was staggering to my feet.
“Halt!” The giantess called, spear pointed in my direction.
“Um, no.” I changed into a huge spider and scampered up the wall then into the vent, hurrying back to the others.
“Taelim!” Everyone seemed to shout all at once as I returned to my normal form, panting.
“Good news: I found the ‘tree.’ Bad news: well…” I looked around. Guards were already on the move.
We were surrounded in seconds as fomorian guards closed in, weapons drawn. Then they parted, and Balor the Mountain lumbered toward us, scowling. “Murderers,” his low voice boomed. Slowly, he drew his greatsword. It could easily slice any one of us down the middle.
Think. You did this. Then it hit me, a way to survive this, albeit a hastily thought-out one. “Hold hands!” I yelled, desperate.
The group hesitated, their weapons already out, but they didn’t question it. The moment our hands linked I closed my eyes and pictured the Black Tower that belonged to my father.
“Stop the druid!” Balor roared, but it was too late.
In a rush of vertigo we were plane shifted to the expansive grassy fields that was one of the tower’s pocket dimensions.
Maziel grabbed me by the shoulders. “Was that worth it?!” She snarled, pointing to the staff.
“What other lead did we have, Maz?” I snapped back. “All the signs Lugh wrote pointed there!”
“Stop yelling!” Beck interfered, hesitating at our side.
It was Klotonk’s voice that forced our attention. “Maziel…” The little gnome wizard was staring at a startling white mask set in the field.
Maziel uttered a curse, and I felt forgotten angry well up inside me again. That mask belonged to the Glaistig, and I knew the two communicated. Part of me still wanted revenge on the Arch Fey who killed my father, and part of me knew I stood no chance.
The drow donned the mask, and the voice of the Glaistig echoed through Maziel’s lips, low and sultry. The confidence of one, for now, untouchable.
“Why have you abandoned your quest in Mag Turea?”
“Seriously? Does every Fey know what we’re doing?” I growled.
“You bear Erevan’s scrying boon.” She explained as if it were obvious.
We exchanged looks briefly before remembering what that drow wizard said in the temple of Lolth--something about being marked.
“Can we get rid of it?” Klo asked hopefully.
“Of course,” the Glaistig replied. “Will it away, though I can’t say for certain what refusing his gift might mean.”
Off then! I swore at the invisible mark on my arm. My skin tingled, and an unseen weight was lifted from me, one I hadn't noticed earlier.
“I see you recovered my staff, young druid.”
I snapped back to attention. I pictured her smiling with the comment. I scowled back, there was no way I was returning it.
“Why did Lugh have it?” Klotonk questioned.
“A gift from me, but it seems he sought fit to pass it on.”
Damn right. All mine.
“You need to return to Mag Turea, time is of the essence.” The Glaistig added, this time a hint of concern in her voice.
“We’re kind of being hunted,” Yaup replied smartly.
“They’re tracking you even now. It’s only a matter of time before--” a boom echoed throughout the space, reminding us this was only a small dimension within a very real tower of stone. The boom echoed again and again.
“Someone’s trying to get in...” I added, already heading toward the fresco portal.
“Return...” was all the Glaistig said before the masked disappeared and Maziel’s senses came back to her.
“Come on…” I urged the group. “We have a threat to deal with.”
We took the back entrance out of the tower, carefully circling around until we spotted the massive giant that was Balor the Mountain. In the daylight I could see clearly this was no fomorian, not with the other comparatively small fomorian beating on the wall of the tower beside him. No, Balor was something else, he was a frost giant.
“All right,” Maziel whispered, gesturing with her hands. “I propose we--”
But I had already polymorphed into a triceratops and charged the two giants, roaring. The fomorian stopped wailing on the tower and turned to greet me. I heard the party cry out, then follow hurriedly, a fireball preceding my sharp horns into the fomorian’s chest. The time for talk hadn’t even begun.
The fight was brutal. Balor nearly beat us into submission, despite us handily dropping his friend. Klotonk was screaming for us not to kill the king’s favored warrior, and eventually Beck polymorphed the frost giant into a penguin. Ragged, we trudged over to the furious little creature.
Yaup picked it up before it could waddle away. “Can you understand it, Taelim?”
I eyed the cleric before drawing the Staff of the Woodlands and casting Awaken on the penguin. At once the penguin’s angry squawks turned into high pitched threats.
“Kill me, murderers. They know I’m here.” Balor warned.
“Why are you calling us murderers?” Klo asked, genuinely confused. We had only knocked his guard unconscious.
“We know you killed Lugh!” Balor snapped, struggling in Yaup’s arms uselessly.
“Um, no,” I retorted. “He summoned us, but we found his body instead.”
“You ran from our city, the make of criminals.”
“Are you serious? You charged us, weapons drawn.”
“Hold on a second,” Yaup said, shifting the penguin under one arm. He gestured with his free hand, as if writing something in the air. A strange presence seemed to settle in the back of our minds. “There now, none of us can speak lies in this fun zone of facts. Let’s start over. Did any of us here kill Lugh?”
“No.” The answer spilled from all our mouths immediately. Even Balor.
The penguin stopped squirming. “Then why did you flee?”
“I panicked,” I replied honestly. “Lugh told us to find a tree, but I found a tree-staff, next thing I know you’re running at us.”
“You were guests of our king!” Bres said, as if that meant they wouldn’t kill us.
“It felt like we were prisoners,” Maziel replied. “We needed to investigate, and the Red Caps had been hunting us. We thought they might have killed Lugh, but we found giant footsteps near his body. We didn’t have time to investigate properly before this--” she motioned to our present state.
“We really are just trying to find Bres,” Klo added innocently enough. “His mother asked us to...”
Balor’s tiny penguin form seemed to soften. “You do not aim to interfere in our politics?”
“No offense, I honestly couldn’t give a shit who’s king,” I said bluntly. “We’re just trying to get to the gate of Szith Morcane, whichever king opens it.”
“Then I have acted rashly,” Balor replied, almost an apology. “Will you return with me to Mag Turea?”
“That depends,” Maziel crossed her arms. “Are you going to kill us?”
“No,” Balor answered. “I shall explain matters to my king, he may even grant forgiveness for your rudeness.”
I snorted but said nothing. We all looked to Beck. The bard sighed, waiting as Yaup put the penguin on the ground and took a few steps back. At once the frost giant loomed over us, no trace of hostility left.
“I guess I should provide some medical assistance to this other guy,” Yaup said, walking toward the unconscious fomorian.
Balor nodded, but continued to stare at us. “We should head to that little town nearby. I had instructed Cethlenn to hold it hostage should I not return.”
We all collectively gaped. “This is why the locals don’t like us.” I said, already walking that way.
Cethlenn, aka the Thundering Sky, was Balor’s druid wife. A legend in her own right, she had planeshifted them and a small contingent of fomorians to Stilt Town. When we showed up, the bullywugs and orcs didn’t even look surprised. The relatively new dwarves were probably just beginning to understand we often spelled trouble.
We made plans to return to Mag Turea in the morning, neither party was in any condition to cast spells after recent events. So, after some backwater drinks at the local pub, our small group returned to my father’s tower, the giants making camp outside.
My friends drifted off to sleep, scattered around the library’s hearth. When I was certain I was the only one up, I took my drink and the scrying orb and headed for the fresco leading to the tower’s throne room. Once inside the bleak space, I tried not to think of the first time I stumbled in here, finding my father’s headless body. Inadvertently I shivered, sitting on the high seat and pulling the orb into my lap.
I tapped the armrest uneasily, sipping my drink and wondering if I should even bother. I knew Lysandra and I hadn’t ended on great terms, that was my doing entirely. That didn’t stop me from thinking about her. Often. With the understanding I was supposed to relinquish Illium’s responsibilities in due time, I had somehow entertained the hope she and I could try again.
I groaned, doubting myself. Screw it. I leaned over the orb, closed my eyes and concentrated on the woman I knew well.
The place was dank and unfamiliar, the faint sound of water dripping in the distance. The vision funneled me down a dark hallway of cells, then moved through the bars of one space before it settled on the naked, shivering frame of Lysandra chained to the wall. She was half-starved and beaten, far from the image I remembered. I watched for a moment longer before my own rage pulled me out of the scry.
My breathing came in ragged gasps as I sat there, unable to grasp what I saw. Then it settled on me, along with the suffocating guilt that I might have caused this for pushing her away. I threw my cup across the room and screamed before I huddled down and cried.
The hand came on my shoulder almost immediately, strong and endeavoring to be comforting. “Taelim,” Maziel tried softly. “What did you see?”
“It’s my fault,” I choked out. “I told her to go…”
Slowly, Maziel wrapped an arm around me. “Who?”
Through my sobs I explained what I saw. For a time, Maziel simply waited there until I regained some sense of calm, my tears turning into uneasy breaths. Helplessness faded, then a new feeling took root, fury.
“I’m going to find whoever did this, and I’m going to kill them.”
“We, Taelim, we will kill them. We’ll find her, I promise. But...”
I knew what she was going to say, and I hated it. “Mag Turea. Torog. Saving the world or some shit.”
Maziel nodded grimly. “We don’t even know where she is. She’s strong…”
“Whatever,” I replied glumly.
“I’ll ask Klotonk to prepare his Dream spell. He might learn something.”
I perked up at the notion. Klo could reach Lys through dreams, he might be able to find out where she is.
Maziel quietly got to her feet. She stared down at me, and I already knew what she was thinking. Would I abandoned them in the middle of the night?
“I’ll still plane shift us to Mag Turea,” I promised, loathing myself with every passing second. Suddenly, I didn’t give a damn what happened to the rest of the Material Plane, but I know I didn’t have a plan otherwise.
I could see the drow exhale in relief, however slight. “Try to get some sleep, Taelim. I swear we’ll make things right.”
I only nodded and watched as she soundlessly approached the library fresco and teleport to the other room. I leaned back against the throne, slumping to the base of the seat. Despite my best efforts, sleep didn’t come.